You don’t need to speak Swedish to understand the idea behind “flygskam.” Its English translation is flight shame, and a growing number of travelers are feeling that shame and rethinking their mode of vacation transportation. The belief is that reducing air travel will help fight global warming.
Spurred on by teenage activist Greta Thunberg, flight shame is an environmental movement that highlights the aviation industry’s growing carbon footprint, putting pressure on carriers to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The “Greta effect” has stirred up a new sense of urgency over airlines and climate change. Thunberg brought attention to the issue when she took a racing yacht to a climate summit in New York to avoid flying.
One immediate sign of the Greta effect is fewer passengers at Swedish airports, where the movement was born in 2017. Earlier this month, Swedavia, which owns 10 airports in Sweden, announced that it had seen a 4 percent drop in the number of passengers last year. In 2019, there were around 40 million passengers flying to and from all Swedavia airports, down from 42 million in 2018. The biggest drop was seen in the Stockholm airport, with numbers down 8 percent.
The flight shame movement isn’t confined to Sweden. A survey of more than 6,000 people in the United States, Germany, France, and the UK by the Swiss Bank UBS found that 21 percent had reduced the number of flights they took over the past year out of concern for the environment.
“With the pace of the climate change debate, we think it is fair to assume that these trends are likely to continue in developed markets,” the UBS analysts said in the report.
In England, more than 100,000 people have pledged to be flight free in 2020.
The CEO of SAS, one of Scandinavia’s largest carriers, has attributed his airline’s declining passenger numbers to flight shame (along with a weak krona). In Germany, where passenger counts are also in decline, one political party said improving the rail system could help make domestic flights obsolete. It’s reached the point where the CEO of Dutch carrier KLM wrote an open letter asking passengers not to fly unless necessary.
“Over the past 10 years, it’s gone from a trend to a lifestyle,” said Adriana Lynch, chief marketing officer at Chief Outsiders. Lynch works with brands in the hospitality industry. “Consumers are no longer saying that it’s cute to be socially responsible. They’re looking for alternatives. In 2020 it’s an actual movement.”
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were confronted with an overwhelming amount of flight shame and finger wagging after taking four private jet trips in 11 days. Soon after, the prince announced that he was launching an initiative called Travalyst, an effort to bring greater awareness to sustainability and travel. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are now flying commercial carriers.
The erstwhile prince isn’t the only one trying to make travel more sustainable. Last week JetBlue announced that it will go carbon neutral this year, offsetting its estimated 15 billion to 17 billion pounds of CO2 — equivalent to more than 1.5 million automobiles — by funding programs such as reforestation, supporting wind and solar projects, and exploring the use of biofuels. It comes on the heels of similar programs from EasyJet and British Airways.
"Though none of the larger US airlines have yet matched JetBlue, I won’t be surprised if at least one decides to do so,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst.
Air travel accounts for about 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, a much smaller percentage than automobiles, but according to projections from researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University in England, emissions from the sector could more than double by 2050, even if planes become substantially more fuel-efficient.
While airlines grapple with solutions, travelers now have ways to check on how they may or may not be contributing to the problem. One of the shame-iest websites is called Shame Plane. It offers an estimate of how much Arctic ice will melt based on your trip. (Bon voyage!) There are also slightly less shame-based carbon emissions calculators, such as the Carbon Foot Print Calculator. The International Civil Aviation Organization also has a helpful calculator.
If you’d like to shrink your footprint and diminish your flight shame, you can donate to organizations that work specifically to fund earth-friendly, carbon-offsetting programs. Cool Effect funds reforestation projects and nature preserves. Green-e specializes in renewable energy projects, and Gold Standard focuses on reforestation and renewable energy. There are hundreds of choices of projects you can fund through organizations.
Many major airlines work with similar organizations and give travelers the opportunity to offset carbon emissions by making donations based on the length of their flight. Those airlines include: Alaska Airlines, Delta, JetBlue, United, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, Austrian, Brussels Airlines, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, EVA, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa, and Qantas.
This week, the travel app TripIt announced it was adding a feature that not only shows a flight’s carbon emissions, but provides practical ideas on how to offset them. Also this week, the airline and hotel booking app Hopper announced it will donate four trees for every flight booked and two trees for every hotel booked through its app in partnership with Eden Reforestation Projects.
The International Council on Clean Travel regularly ranks the most fuel-efficient airlines. Choosing a fuel-efficient airline is another way to help reduce emissions. In the United States, the most fuel-efficient airline in 2017 and 2018 was Frontier, followed by Spirit and Southwest. The least efficient was JetBlue, because it operates its planes with a lower load factor and fewer seats per plane. Fewer seats means fewer passengers. It’s akin to driving with fewer passengers in a car. The ICCT reported Frontier ranked high because it has a newer fleet and more direct flights than competitors. Internationally, Norwegian Air was the most fuel-efficient airline. British Airways was ranked worst.
One key difference between the flight shame movement in Europe versus the United States is that European travelers have many more rail options, both domestically and continentally. If a vacationer wants to travel from Switzerland to Germany or Italy to France, there are ways to do so that don’t require additional hours, or days. In the United States, large swaths of the country are not connected by rail, or if they are, routes are limited or simply impractical.
“In the US, if you’re going to tell someone not to fly on environmental grounds, you’re often telling them not to travel,” said Seth Kaplan, an author and airline analyst. “Oftentimes there isn’t a greener option, or an option that anyone is going to put up with in terms of travel time. But generally no greener option at all.”
The lack of options is frustrating to Eva Martinez of Quincy. She said she wants to do the right thing and reduce the number of flights she takes each year, but not at the expense of missing time with her family in New Mexico. She said she has friends in the same boat, or, in this case, plane. Giving up flying means less time with family, or fewer vacations outside the United States.
So while travelers are more focused on the environment, Harteveldt said he doesn’t see flight shame taking hold in the United States, especially as airfares continue to drop and more routes open.
Even in continental Europe, where the growth of air travel slowed in 2019, it’s impossible to clearly ascribe the change to flight shame. David Tarsh, managing director of Tarsh Consulting, which represents a number of companies within the travel industry, said reasons could run the gamut, from riots in Chile, to strife in Hong Kong, or terrorism in Sri Lanka.
“Even if [travelers] tell you the reason for not flying was flight shaming, it is possible that other factors were dominant,” Tarsh said. "For example: higher air fares, slightly inconvenient dates, or corporate cost cutting. One needs to investigate very carefully before being able to assert definitively that flight shaming is having a significant impact.”
There is one easy way to eliminate flight shame, and that’s to stay grounded, but keep in mind that long car trips, particularly solo trips in heavy traffic, will not help the environment. But if staying on land is not an option, an easy way to reduce your footprint is by flying economy instead of business or first class. According to a study from the World Bank, the emissions associated with flying in business class are about three times as great as flying in coach, because more passengers per plane means fewer flights.
At last, cramped economy passengers have something to be happy about: smaller carbon footprints.